Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hearts of Steel - Chapter 1

"I want it, Mommy! Please...please...pleeeeeeze!"

I pretended that I couldn't see or hear the little boy sitting across from me in his mama's lap, squirming and begging to be set free. He'd already broken the child safety harness that was supposed to rein him in. As the plastic toy football sailed past my head yet a third time, I turned up the volume of my MP3 player and tried not to glare at him.

Now, where was that magazine I'd picked up at the airport gift shop? I'd better not have lost it. The thing might've cost me three times the regular newsstand price. Where do they get off charging that much for a magazine? For that kinda money, the pages had better be edged in gold.

Maybe they were. That article about the rise of black women in the business world looked interesting. I could use some extra pointers to help me get ahead. Recent college graduate, dewy-eyed intern. I felt like I had a FRESH MEAT sign on my back for all the employees at the consulting firm to take advantage of.

. . .Priye can you deliver this package for me?. . .
. . .Priye can you sort and deliver this mail for me?. . .
Priye this. Priye that.
Lift that barge; tote that bale. I was going to be soooo glad when my internship was over and I could walk through that door as a full-fledged employee.

I opened the magazine to the table of contents, licking my thumb, and leisurely flipped through the pages. The airport monitor said that my flight out of Accra, Ghana to Lagos, Nigeria was delayed, so I took my time, letting my eyes scan the pages for articles of interest.

"Now, Kwame. What has mommy told you about whining?" You know mommy's very unhappy when you whine."

Even though I'd tuned up the volume, risking permanent eardrum damage, I still heard them, even over the smooth sounds of sultry India Arie jamming in my ears.

"But I want it. I want it now. Please? Please let me have the big bears. Please. Pleeeeze? I promise I won't ask for anything else."

The kid begged pretty hard. So I knew what was coming next. The mother had no choice. She was going to crack. My mama used to get that look sometimes, when she'd just about enough of me and my brothers, Dozie and Mike.

Actually, when she'd had enough of them. I was such an angelic child. Never gave her a moment's peace...I mean problem. Because I was so well behaved as a child, I didn't understand how Kwame's mother could tolerate that behavior. I had no sympathy for her.

Well, not much.

Please, don't let her look at me. Please, I silently prayed. I didn't want to see that look of quiet desperation in her eyes.

. . .Don't look at her, don't you dare look at her, Priye Cole. . .

Oh! Too late. I looked at her. What did I have to do that for? I think she took my sympathetic gaze as permission to allow Kwame to continue to annoy me.

"I promise I won't ask for anything else." Kwame pleaded.

"You said that when I bought you that GameBoy that you permanently loaned to your friends, Kwame. And when I bought you those sneakers that are sitting and rotting in the bottom of your toy chest and those disappearing ink markers with all of the caps left off of them. No more toys, Kwame. I mean it this time."

She sounded tough, shaking her finger at her son, but I don't think she really meant it. She was going to crack. I could tell by the look in her eyes - somewhere between maternal and murderous instinct. Kwame was going to wear her down until he got what he wanted. Speaking of wants, that was a baaaaad suit that sister girl was working in my magazine, I flipped another page to continue the article. Said that she was the CEO of her own interior design business.

That'll be someday. I just know it. I may be a lowly intern now. But a few more years, impressing the right people, taking on key assignments, and before I can say six-figure salary, I'll have one.

I paused in mid-flip when a shadow fell across the page. Without lifting my head, I raised my eyes. I didn't have to guess who that was. It was the mother, with bratty Kwame not so silently in tow. That must be some kind of record. Two minutes, three, before she went back on her word?

I looked up into two red-rimmed eyes. Either she'd been crying or drinking or badly in need of both. Kwame was tugging on her arm and yelling at the top of his lungs that she never got him anything he wanted. It was soo unfair. And why was she being sooo mean to him! And he was going to run away.

I almost laughed out loud. My mama had a saying to bust up our threats to run away. When I'd threatened to do it once when she wouldn't let me go to some concert for some group that isn't even in existence anymore, she'd said, "Don't run, walk. You'll last longer and you'll get farther."

That had certainly put the running fire right out of me.

"Uh...excuse me. I hate to bother you..."

Then why are you? The words were held firmly in check in my mind by pressing my lips together.

"I was wondering..." The woman continued.


"Those bears." She gestured with her free hand toward the oversize teddy bears sitting on either side of me.

"I want one, mommy!"

"Son, what has mommy told you about interrupting? Do you want me to put you in time-out?"

It was on the tip of my tongue to say that if little Kwame had been cutting up that way in front of my mother, there wouldn't be any time-out business. Uh-uh. No way. It would be time-up - and with the business end of a switch.

But these days, you can't tell people that. You know how funny people get when you try to tell them how to raise their kids. Somebody had better tell this woman that if she lets that little boy put his grubby fingers on my bears just one more time. Just one more time. . .

"I was wondering about your bears. They're beautiful. Where'd you get that suit for the papa bear? And those spats on his shoes are simply adorable. Are those real pearls around mama bear's neck? Kwame! Don't touch that!"

I cut my eyes just in time to see Kwame pulling at the mama bear's clutch purse.

"Would you be interested in selling your bears to me? Or one of them?"

"I'm sorry, but they're not for sale," I said, using my best polite but insistent voice. All the while, I eyeballed the kid. Just as soon as I went back to my magazine, that hairy, freckle-faced spawn of Satan was going to try to make off with one of my bears.

"They're an anniversary present for my grandparents. I had them custom-made. They've been married for sixty years. You understand why I don't want to sell them, don't you?" I leaned forward and tried to convince the boy with the reasonableness of my tone.

Kwame was starting to get the idea that he would not get his way this time. His ears perked up as he looked back and forth from his mother to me, then back to his mother again. One of us was going to have to back down, and it wasn't going to be me.

"Come on, Kwame. Let's not bother the nice lady anymore." The woman's face crumbled.

"Lady, I'll pay you twice what you paid. Just name your price."

"They're not for sale." My lips were tight. My eyes weren't smiling.

My mother used to say that when my lip curled up and my eyes squinched up at the corners, I looked wicked. That should have been enough of a warning to make this woman back up.

It wasn't. She started to rummage around in her oversize bag. She wasn't going to buy me off. Why didn't she tell the little hellion to shut up or get his butt whimped?

There was no way my parents would have let this go on for long. All they had to do was give us the look and me and my brothers straightened up and flew right. I could still hear Dozie and Mike's howls that day after church when mother had warned us to stop passing sweets.

I'd had to watch my back for months after that. Of course they'd insisted that I was the one who'd started it. It didn't matter. When Mother said no, she meant exactly that.

"I'm sorry. I really can't. But I can give you the card of the woman who made them for me. She lives here in Accra."

"But we don't live here. This is just a stopover for us."

I shrugged, truly sympathetic. That wasn't my problem. I didn't know what else to tell her. It had taken two months and a good chunk out of my earnings to have these bears custom-designed. An intern doesn't make much to begin with. Even if she offered me three times what I paid for them, I couldn't sell them. The look on my grandparents' face when I dragged them through the door at their anniversary party was going to be priceless.

"I'm sorry," I said again. Hopefully for the last time.

"No, I'm sorry. Sorry to have bothered you."

"No bother." I smiled and crossed my fingers underneath the magazine against the little white lie. Okay, big, fat, hairy lie. But I didn't have the heart to make her feel any worse than she already did.

That little Kwame was a migraine in the making. I wouldn't have him next to me on this flight for all of the available CEO positions for black women in the world.

There was nobody sitting next to me on this flight. No one was getting near these bears. I'd made sure of that. I'd had to purchase all three seats - row, middle and aisle. A little expensive for a couple of stuffed animals, but it was going to be totally worth it when I saw my grandma's face. She and I have a contest going.

She'd been collecting teddy bears since she was a little girl. Her sitting room was filled to bursting with every type of bear. None, I'm sure, could compare to this one. I hoped she would like them.

Both bears were just a few inches shorter than I was, and I'm a good five-foot-four in heels. The mother bear was honey brown in colour, with big brown eyes just like my grandmother's. Her skirt and jacket were bright red, my grandmother's favorite colour, with a white lace blouse.

Grandpa Bear was taller than Grandma bear. I'd had to put a little extra padding around the middle for Grandpa. Everybody knew how Grandpa liked to eat. If I walked up in there with a skinny bear, they'd tell me that I didn't get my money's worth. My cousins Joy and Brenda, would tell me that I'd been taken. I'd spent a lot of money for just the weekend trip. One small part of me wondered if it was worth it.

I had to shake myself out of it. Of course it was worth it. I was going back to see my family. I hadn't been back to Nigeria in a while. Too busy on the job. I guess I didn't mean to be so out-of-pocket. Its just those folks on the job never give you a moment's peace. I hadn't known being an intern would be so hard. The woman who recruited me right out of the university had made corporate life sound so easy. Looking at my high grades, my extracurricular activities, she'd said it would be like a walk in the park for me.

What park was she talking about? Central Park? Everyday I went to work, I felt like I was being mugged. Not literally - mentally. There are some days when I feel like I can't do anything right. As soon as I do screw up, as soon as I let down my guard, some pushy upstart wants to grab what's mine.

Just like little Kwame over there.

"I'm watching you."

I said it loud enough for his mother to hear. If I found one bear hair out of place, one plucked button eye, one ruffle deflounced I was going straight to Kwame with my size six shoe up against his bare bottom.

That's right. I said it. I don't have any love for badass little kids. I can thank my parents for that. They were strict in their raising of us, but we always knew that we were loved. We always knew where the boundaries were.

My daddy says I have an evil streak in me. Maybe I do. I just don't have time for tantrums and theatrics.

Case in point was that couple standing at the ticket-check-in counter. Newlyweds, obviously. They were talking loud, smooching, and shamelessly feeling each other up so that everyone knew it, too. They couldn't keep their hands off each other.

"I don't understand how this could happen." The woman barely complained through her hiccuping sobs. "We made the reservation months ago. What do you mean I don't have a seat?"

The gate attendant kept her eyes lowered. Her lacquered fingernails over the terminal keyboard.

"It's all right, honey. Its only a two-hour flight." Captain was doing his best to console her. It didn't work. I think she was more interested in letting everyone know how displeased she was than listening to her husband's pacification.

"But we're on our honeymoon!" She insisted. "I don't want to be separated."

"Oh, deal with it," I muttered under my breath and rolled my eyes. I didn't want to be unsympathetic, but we all had issues with the airlines. Longer lines, restrictions on carry-on luggage, tighter security. It was the price we paid for the convenience of being able to travel the country at will.

I didn't know what the big deal was all about. Whar were a few hours sitting apart when they were going to have their whole lives together? Maybe she knew something that he didn't. Maybe she didn't expect it to last. She might have something there.

They looked like a pair made in heaven. But just because they looked good together didn't mean they needed to be together. Just look at J.Lo and Puffy. Poster children for the Beautiful people but certainly about as disastrous a pair as you'd ever want to meet.

Speaking of one of the beautiful people. . .

I paused in midflick, midflip of a page. I must have looked silly, my thumb hanging in midair, my tongue picking out between my lips. It wasn't easy looking cool and sophisticated when the equivalent of an African-American Adonis graced your presence.

Presence and grace. That's exactly what he epitomized.

He moved through the airport waiting area, unmindful of the chaos that accompanied delayed flights. He wore a crisp, white oxford shirt, with sleeve creases that would slit a wrist if handled the wrong way. Butt-hugging, prewashed trousers with heavy starch made that swooshing sound that only professionally pressed denim from the dry cleaners could provide. For that kind of attention to detail, he must have had one heck of a dry-cleaning bill.

His skin was taut, head shaved smooth, no stubble. A man that sharp wouldn't be caught dead with a head full of stubble. A face maybe. His face had a hint of a five o' clock shadow along his jaw and chin. The thud of his boot heels on the waiting room floor cut through that screech of Kwame's wail and the woman's annoying whining.

I lowered my eyes before he caught me gawking. But his image was imprinted on my eyeballs. It swam on the page in front of me, blocking out the oh-so-sensible stock listings.

"J.D! I thought you weren't going to make it, man."

Captain of the Football team grabbed his forearm and pulled the black man toward him in a macho-man, half-hug, half-wrestling-maneuver type move.

J.D. His name was J.D. I wondered what the initials stood for. Just Divine? Juicy Dessert?

He flashed his friend a lopsided grin. Strong white teeth. Not a gold cap in the row.

"Had a little bit of car trouble." He shrugged apologetically.

He wasn't speaking very loudly. I guess my ears were just hypersensitive, straining to hear him. I almost held my breath as he spoke. I hoped that something that fine wouldn't come off sounding like a thug from a rap video or a "too, too sensitive" type with an affected lisp.

He wasn't a ghanaian. He was definitely not a nigerian either. What makes me so sure? He could be a black man but I detected an accent of some kind.

"Let me guess. You couldn't decide between the Lexus or the Lincoln?" Miss Honeymoon Heartache pouted her lips. She had her arm around her husband's, but her eyes were all over that J.D person.

"The flight's delayed?' He asked.

"Worse than that. The airline has screwed up our reservations."

If it weren't for the fact that she was a grown woman, I'd bet that she'd stomp her perfect feet.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't have a seat in first class, J.D. Can you believe it? I've been bumped."

She'd been bumped. I could believe it. With the way she was behaving, it might have been on purpose. If she didn't stop whining, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that she'd been bumped from the flight altogether.

I didn't know which would be worse, a seat next to Kwame or one next to her. Though, I could probably stand sitting in the same area with her if I was surrounded by first-class luxury.

All three turned to look at the gate attendant, who simply smiled apologetically.

"What's the ETA of our flight?" J.D asked.

ETA? I mouthed the words without making a sound. What kind of person can use ETA in a sentence and not sound like a geek? My hands shook, trying to keep from laughing out loud. I raised the magazine, holding it in front of my face. It made my elbows hurt, holding it in such an awkward angle. But it was better than letting him see me poke fun at him.

"Don't worry about it, sweetness. Aint nothing but a thang," J.D said confidently.

Oh-ho... So there was a little 'hood rat in him. It came out easily, but I wasn't buying it. Not completely. Everything about him said money and class.

I know the two don't necessarily always go together. But he was a walking embodiment of someone who had it all; wealth, position, education. If he occasionally dropped the g's from the ends of his words or threw in an offhand obscenity, he did it for effect, not because he hadn't had the opportunities to learn how to express himself in better terms.

The way he slipped back and forth between personas made me believe that there was a man who was just as relaxed hanging with the brothers as taking care of business in the bedroom...

Oh! Did I say bedroom? I meant boardroom. I had to get my mind out of the gutter before I got on that plane. Grandma could smell sexy thoughts a thousand miles away. I stopped counting the number of times she'd called me up in the middle of the night, telling me she'd been dreaming about fish. I think that's some kind of old-folks code word. She was the one who was fishing - trying to find out if I was pregnant...or at least if I would admit to having sex.

If she only knew how much she didn't have to worry about that. With me focusing on my career, I hardly have time to check out dating materials, let alone go on an actual date. That's probably why I reacted so strongly to the black American. Away from my computer terminal, my four-foot-by-four-foot cubicle, and my boss dumping projects on my desk, certain parts of my body woke up and realized what they were for.

"Why don't you take my seat, sweetness? It won't kill me not to ride in first class this once."

"You can't do that, can you J.D?" Captain of the football team asked.

J.D nodded over his shoulder. There was a ticketing kiosk midway between the waiting area and the rest room. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a black, leather wallet. He inserted a credit card, and with a few stabs at the keypad, changed his seating assignment from first class to economy. Hubby then stepped up, inserted his own card, and purchased a first class ticket for his wife, since one had miraculously become available.

In admiration, I whistled low under my breath while at the same time scanning the area for a rush of security. Since that awful day in September, the airlines had been especially wary of last-minute changes to seating assignments.

Now, that was a friend for you. To give up something good and to risk being detained and frisked-not many would do so.

Triumphant, the happy hubby approached the gate agent and confirmed the seat. You'd think that with all of that, his wife would have turned flips. She still wasn't satisified.

"But we're not together," she complained. "I'm sitting behind you."

"After you get on board, you can see about getting some passengers to exchange seats. I'm sure after you explain your situation, they'll be more than happy to give up their seats." J.D suggested.

I figured out J.D must have stood for Junior Diplomat. She flung her arms around him, holding him a little too close, if you ask me, for someone who was supposed to be so in love with her hubby. It may have been my imagination, but I thought I saw her give him a little hip thrust.

Hmmmmph! Some people have no shame. I gave my magazine a little shake and returned to my article. There was more going on in that triangle than met the eye. I didn't know. I didn't want to know. My curiosity about the black American dimmed.

The air crackled for a moment and the voice of the gate agent came over the PA system announcing my flight's arrival and the first boarding call.

"Attention passengers. Flight four-two-seven to Lagos, Nigeria is now ready for boarding. This is the first call for our Gold Pass ticket holders. We'd also like to call for passengers with small children or passengers needing assistance."

I looked to my left and to my right at the bears. If I wanted to be sleazy, I suppose I could have tried to cut ahead of the rest of the passengers. I didn't know how I was going to manage those bears on board without knocking everyone in the back of the head as I passed by.

I followed suit with the rest of the passengers as they roused themselves, waiting for the gate attendant to call their range of seating assignments.

As I stuffed my magazine into my purse, all around me were the signs of departure. Cheerful waves, tearful good-byes. I wondered about each and everyone of the people around me. I wondered about their lives, their individual stories. What had brought them to this place, to this point in time? When you're forced to people-watch for an extended period of time, you wonder about these types of things.
But most of all, I wondered if I was going to be trapped in that airplane for two hours with Kwame.

I slung my strap over my arm. The bag pressed into my hip as I grasped one bear around the waist, twisted a little to the right, and got the bear into a comfy position before I reached for the other. Grandpa bear leaned too far forward. His black fedora with the white band and red feather tickled my cheek and made me giggle and say, "stop that!"

As I clutched Grandma's bear against my right hip, I could hear little Kwame whining.

"I want one, mommy. Pleeeeeeze!" He must have heard me having fun with one of the bears. That renewed his yen to possess one.

His voice wailed above the departure noise and competed with the gate agent's second call.

"Quite a handful," a smooth voice said directly behind me and above my head. I tried not to crane my neck around to see.

I looked up into the hazel eyes of the black american. I stared openly for a moment.

I blinked, shaking myself from the spell of his eyes, and found a way to dismiss his inexplicable effect on me. Must be special contact lenses.

"He needs his behind tanned." I retorted.

Did I say that out loud? The look on my face must have communicated my dismay. A lot of people don't believe in corporal punishment. They say that violence perpetrated against children is inhumane and only leads to more violence. Where were those people when Kwame chucked a football at my head, huh? I was only offering to end what he'd started.

"That, too. But I was referring the teddy bears."

"Oh, I knew that," I said quickly to recover my composure.

"Need some help with those?"

He reached for the bears, but I pulled away. "No, I think I've got it. Thanks."

To prove my point, I stood straighter and took a firmer grip around the bears' waists. But Grandpa Bear didn't want to cooperate. Just like my real Grandpa. Always pulling the unexpected prank. As I hefted him higher, his clad foot swung out and caught the student smack-dab in the middle of her stomach.

I don't think I hurt her. Not really. But she oomphed anyway and clutched her stomach like I'd just shot her with a ball.

"Excuse me," I said with exaggerated sweetness. "I'm so sorry."

Something told me that I was going to give out a few more excuse me's and I'm sorry's before this trip was over. In return for my apology, the girl gave me a smile about as thin as her bony legs.

Then the gate agent unclasped the metal ring and drew back the nylon card blocking the entrance to the next wave of passengers. I started down the connecting tube. The blast of hot, jet-fume-smelling air made me blink. I blinked as fast as I could. I could feel my contact lens drying out.

Standing in the middle of the ramp, my eyes tearing, I was a human roadblock. But I couldn't do anything about that. I tried to move aside, to give the other passengers room to pass.

We'd all been waiting so long to board the plane. Everyone was getting impatient. If I had been another passenger on the plane, I probably would have cursed by now for holding up the line. Couldn't they see that I was coping the best I could with two giant, furry bears and a set of drying contact lenses?

Maybe I should have boxed those bears and checked them at the ticket counter like so much excess baggage. But I hadn't. I had thought buying them seats would deliver them to Grandma and Grandpa in the best condition. And now, the ticketing line had sneaked around so long. I was afraid that I'd miss my flight if I tried to check them in. I made a command decision to carry them on board with me.

After this episode, I had to remind myself not to give myself any more orders. And if I ever forgot and tried to give myself another order, I'd have to give myself permission not to follow.

I treated these bears like they were people or something. Enough of that. They were toys! If they were a little dusty from the trip, my grandparents would just have to understand. I moved over as far to the right as I could, dragging them with me.

With my back pressed against the wall, I dug in my bag for my bottle of contact lens solution. I searched by feel alone because I had one eye squeezed shut to keep my lens from popping out. The other eye watered just as badly.

"There you are!"

I flipped open the contact lens dropper with my thumb, tilted my head back, and squeezed a couple of drops into my eyes. A few missed the mark, streaked toward the outer corner of my eyes, collected, then ran along the bridge of my nose. Closing both eyes, I tried to wiggle my eyeballs around to get the lenses to shimmy back into position.

"Here you go."

A large hand clasped my shoulder and dabbed at my face with a soft, masculine-scented cloth.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"

I tried to step back, but I was as far against the wall as I could go. I cracked open one eye, staring suspicioulsy at whoever was bold enough to get that close to me. You just don't sneak up on a black woman like that and put your hands on her.

"Oh, its you." It was J.D. My black macho.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah. I just got a little something in my eye."

"Here. Take this."

"A handkerchief?" A cloth one, too.

"Its clean," he promised, smiling at me. His eyes crinkled up at the corners when he smiled. I liked that. And, as close as he was standing to me, I could tell that he wasn't wearing contact lenses. His eyes were his own. Naturally beautiful. I liked that, too.

"And pressed," I remarked, noticing the neat creases in the white linen. I dried my face, then passed it back to him.

"No, that's all right. You can keep it."

"I suppose its not so clean now." I inspected it and noticed the faint traces of mascara and face powder that I'd left on it. In the corner, in gold embroidery, were the initials J.D. Again, I wondered. J.D.? Jim Dandy?

"That's not how I meant it," he said.

"Thank you," I said, using my most gracious tone. I had to amend it after sounding like I was ready to take a swing at him before.

"My pleasure," he replied, then canted his head in a slight bow toward me. A bow! So continental. If my hands weren't full, I"d almost expect him to kiss one like they do in those old, foreign films.

"Maybe. . .maybe I could use a hand," I relented, then stepped aside to point to Grandpa Bear.

No comments:

Post a Comment